When I trained for marathons, I had to go out for long trail runs. Scratch that,really long training runs. Most people would call 12-20 mile distances a decent “commute”. I called them my Sunday “long” route.
What compounds the personal insanity of this exercise is that historically I was not a distance runner. Sure, I ran track and was pretty dedicated, but I was a sprinter. On a tough day I’d run a quarter mile at a time, and not without some complaining.
My rambling point is that my mind just did not know what to do with running for that amount of time. Working my way past 3 miles (5k), I would make up silly games to keep me occupied. This was mildly amusing and kept me from thinking about how stupid it seemed to run further than most people in Pella drive to work.
But when you get past 6 miles, no amount of counting “Red car vs. Blue car” or “Find the squirrel” seemed to cut it. My mind wanted to focus on the mounting fatigue and increasing effort it took to cover the miles in front of me. I needed something to keep my mind occupied.
TIMEOUT– Anyone who ever ran with me knew that after mile number five I was mentally incapable of completing complex math (or simple math for that matter). To make matters worse, pulling together a string of tangible thoughts was often an exercise in futility. I only mention this for those of you thinking I should have taken up solving algebraic equations in my head or playing mental chess to wile the time away. It’s likely I couldn’t do these things while laying on the couch, let alone in full motion on a running trail. But I digress…
When you run out of things to do while training you start to focus inward on what you body is saying (or screaming), how you are feeling (or what you can’t feel anymore), and how much farther you think you can go. This is usually the point you think through all the possible excuses you could come up to quit and go home, like, “I forgot that PBS was showing their National Parks series,” or “60 degrees and sunny is just not good weather to train in, I think I’ll wait for rain.” And at this point any excuse is a good one, as long as your body can sell it to your mind.
It was not until I started running distances over 10 miles that I noticed that my mind may hold the answer for what my brain should do while negotiating this dubious task. When I began to focus inward on myself and the thoughts swirling in my head, I noticed a dimly lit door standing slightly ajar in my mind.
TIMEOUT– It’s at this point that I should note that some of the things I speak of in this post are literal, some are figurative, and some just “are”. Did I really see a dimly lit door standing slightly ajar in my own mind? I don’t know, but remember, I have run over 10 miles at this point, so it’s hard to tell the difference between the literal, the figurative, and the hot pink panda bear jogging beside me along the Red Rock Lake trails.
When I opened the door I found a smallish room, dimly lit and sparsely furnished. It contained a small table, a simple chair, and a small desk lamp with a pull chain. Upon first inspection I found the room to be a bit unkempt, with a good layer of dust and cob webs decorating the nearly bare walls. There was nearly nothing of interest in the room, which in itself was strangely, well, interesting. Part man-cave, part hunting cabin lodge, this room was both oddly familiar and intriguingly comfortable.
It was around mile 11 that I decided to spruce the place up a bit. I straightened this, tidied that, and with a manly flourish, blew the dust and vacant spider webs off the walls with a leaf blower. Upon inspecting my work, I settled in to the chair, finding it to be well molded to my torso and finished in a thin soft leather over its solid oak seat and back.
At mile 12 I decided to inspect the table. Upon closer examination I found loose lined paper, clean, white, and with just enough substance to feel right under your pen. But there was no pen to be found. Just a box of Mirado pencils lying off to the side, begging to be opened. I cracked the box open, slowly slid out a pencil, and weighed it in my hand. It rested comfortably in the nook of my hand, and with a boyish grin, I spun it across my fingers and knuckles at a staccato pace.
But at mile 13 I became restless. It seemed like the outside world was creeping into my inner sanctuary. I strode to the door and swung it shut, muffling the chaos that lurked just outside. When I returned to the table I saw the pencil I had dropped on the table had left a dark, black mark on the top sheet of the paper. I picked up the pencil again and stared at the mark, feeling compelled to either erase it or turn it into something of interest. So like all guys faced with a problem, I began to doodle.
I added a line here, a scribble there, a long arcing stroke, a little more on the right, a balance of shading in the middle, and smudge or two in the area that seemed a bit light. Before I knew what I was drawing, I saw the emerging outline of a great ancient tree. I added a few more details and laid my pencil down. Before me set my first official work from inside the Quiet Room. I picked up the newly minted masterpiece, walked over to the wall, and affixed it there with a push pin I found stuck into the soft gypsum. I stepped back, cocked my head to the side, and smiled.
It was then that I realized the chaos outside was growing ever louder. It seemed that my training run was coming to an end, and so too must my visit to the Quiet Room. With some hesitation I opened the door, crept out, and joined the “real world” outside. It was here I found my body quaking, my muscles sore and near cramping, and a steady stream of sweat running off me and onto the asphalt below. My run was over, but I was torn between the victory of completing my task and the melancholy of my separation from this new world I had discovered. I quickly began thinking of how to speed up the seven days before my next long run.
On subsequent trips back to the Quiet Room I found it easier to settle in and get to work. Although drawing and dreaming with images came easily, I also found myself writing and dreaming with words. I puzzled over weighty questions and pondered complicated scenarios, and when I was done with each, I set down my pencil and pinned my work to the wall. Sometimes I would pull one down from the wall and replace a word or two with something that felt better in its place. Other times I would just sit in silence, perhaps waiting for these living documents to speak back to me. And sometimes, mystically, magically, they would.
But in training for a marathon there is always a goal in mind… race day. You tell yourself you’ve put in the training and you are ready, but when the gun sounds the nervous bravado turns to adrenaline laced butterflies. But I had my Quiet Room, and very early on I took leave to retreat there. My time there felt normal until mile 16, when something ominous and raucous began pounding on the door. Powerless to ignore it, I opened the door, and was welcomed with a slap in the face from an unexpected guest…leg cramps.
TIMEOUT– It is at this point that I want to clear up the difference between leg cramps and a charley horse. Many people use these terms interchangeably, which is of course, completely absurd. A leg cramp is common in strenuous exercise and caused by hormonal imbalances, dehydration, low levels of potassium or calcium in the blood, side effects of medication, or, more seriously, diseases such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and neuropathy (or so says Wikipedia) A charley horse is a popular North American colloquial term for a painful hit to the leg. Strangely, such an injury is known in the UK as a dead leg, granddaddy, or chopper, and in Australia as a corked thigh or “corky.” It often occurs in sports when an athlete is struck by an opponent’s knee, in a manner like the kick of a horse, perhaps the reason for its name. If you feel such a distinction is stupid, petty, or just a bit of my OCD coming out, I’d love to discuss it with you…within knee-range of your thigh…but I digress.
I battled leg cramps for the remaining 10 miles of the race, and when I could, I took respite back in the Quiet Room until they pounded upon the door again. But with all my comings and goings, leaving the door ajar between visits, the room was being battered by the storming tempest of reality just outside. The once clear and well organized works upon the wall were blowing in the draft, and some had pulled loose from their fasteners. They whirled aimlessly around the room, resting on the floor, or in a corner, until the breeze picked them up once again.
At mile 24 a cramp seized my leg from calf to hamstring, and like a peg-legged pirate on a listing ship I hopped to the side of the path. As I attempted to stretch my leg out of this bioelectrical predicament, I could faintly see the outline of the Quiet Room door in the corner of my mind. The door half ajar, its light seemed to be flickering, as if caught in a thunderstorm-induced brownout. As my cramp subsided enough to allow pressure on my now tender leg, I knew I had a decision to make.
My body begged me to throw in the towel and leave the Quiet Room behind, conceding defeat to the reality that now lay before me. Battered, bruised, and on the verge of exiting the race before I even crossed the finish line, I could embrace the chaos and pain, and limp my way toward my waiting car and what seemed imminent failure.
But the door beckoned me. “Come on in and sit a while. We can get through this, but not if you choose to stay out there.”
In there I found my foundation, my center, my solid footing. But getting back there was not going to be easy. The chaos had me in its grips.
As I shifted my weight to my other leg and took a drink from the bottle on my belt, I could clearly see the fork in the road. No really. There was a discarded plastic fork laying right there on the running path. The irony of it made me chuckle a bit, and my decision was sealed.
As I took my first stride forward, an ugly one at that, I took a deep breath and tried to calm myself. As my walking strides turn to a slow jog, I had nearly grasped the door knob to the Quiet Room. Closing it behind me, I fell into an slow running pace. As I slipped into the sturdy chair I found my gaze locked on the remaining piece on the wall held by a single push pin. It was my first creation in the Quiet Room, the sketch of the majestic, but weathered, great oak.
As the cramps came back, I focused on the tree’s huge root system that peaked just above the ground. These roots went deep and spread out far beyond the drip line of the tree. They held the tree firmly in place for decades, even when the storms of life blew and tossed the tree about. As I focused on the roots, I could feel my legs respond and battle against the muscle seizures that struck with increasing frequency.
As I turned the corner before mile 26, I could sense the mounting crowd around me. Spectators reached out to give high fives and shout motivation, but it all seemed miles away. As I gazed upon the stately limbs of the massive tree, I could feel my arms stretch out slowly to catch a couple of hands on my way. I could feel the breeze on my face as I approached the finish line and could see the tree’s branches sway in the wind.
Upon crossing the finish line I saw the paper give way around the push pin, and the sketch floated toward the floor. As I lurched from the chair to catch it, I tripped over the leg of the table and clattered to the floor, the sketch landing mere inches from my face. But upon closer inspection I found the sketch had changed.
The picture was a sketch of me. The tree had become me. I had become the tree.
At that moment I found myself kneeling on the hard pavement beyond the finish line chute. With the help of a few strangers I got back on my feet and began to wander toward the water table. The sounds, smells, and chaos of the event grabbed me and shook me awake. But as I shuffled to find my family, I was unable to clear the image of that transformation from my mind.
WRITER’S NOTE– The Quiet Room still exists. When I was still training for marathons I would spend quite a bit of time there. But multiple knee scopes and a three year hiatus from running have kept me from the racing circuit. I still go there from time to time when I go on long walks, spend time in quiet meditation, or spend an afternoon drowning a worm on the end of a hook. I try to go often enough that I don’t have to tidy much (I’m a pretty typical man and averse to tidying anything). There are plenty of things on the walls that I’m working on; some that will never see the light of day, and some, like this work, to be shared in the future. Feel free to chew on that dose of paradox and recursion until we meet again.
This piece was first published April 22, 2010, but more recently published here to consolidate my writing. Enjoy!